The Pilsner is at once both one of the most widely recognized style of beer and one of the most misunderstood. First brewed in the mid-19th Century the light and crisp lager redefined what beer could look and taste like, and the beer world has never been the same.
Pilsner has spawned countless imitations, and it’s birth during beer’s industrial revolution led to the adulteration and dilution of the Pilsner defining characteristics. The thin, watery American light lagers that the big industrial brewers are so quick to conflate with the Pilsner style have nearly nothing in common with the noble Bohemian Brew.
The first golden lager was brewed in the town of Pilsen in what is now known as the Czech Republic. The Czechs drink a lot of beer (to this day the Czech Republic drinks the most beer per-capita – nearly 300 pints annually per-person), and they take beer quality very seriously. In the late 1830s, in order to combat a trend of declining quality of the region’s beers, the Czech public banded together with the government to open a new brewery in Pilsen known as “the citizens brewery.”
This new brewery would attempt to reproduce the wildly popular Bavarian lagers being brewed at the time, and the brewery even hired a German as a Brewmaster. Legend has it that a traveling Bavarian monk provided the sample of lager yeast that the brewery needed to begin producing their signature beer, but it was the qualities of the malt, the hops, and especially the water that made the new beer special.
The brewery’s water was drawn from underground springs that filtered through sandstone resulting in a very soft water. The Moravian barley of the region is of high quality, and the maltsters used a new drying technique to produce malt that was very light in color. The famous Saaz hops grown near Pilsen are distinctly spicy and floral with a soft bitterness. Taken together, these ingredients, and the new industrial brewing technologies like refrigeration and pasteurization, created a beer that was unlike anything the Czech beer drinkers had seen before, and by all accounts it was an instant hit.
The extensive Austrian rail network spread the new lager across Europe, and soon German brewers in Bavaria were attempting to clone the crisp and refreshing beer. It was no easy feat, but eventually the brewers developed their own version of the Pilsner (as well as Pilsner’s cousin the Munich Helles), and by the 20th century the beer was spreading across the globe.
German immigrants brought examples of pilsners, and the brewing techniques required to brew them, to America in the early 19th century. These light beers started another revolution in North America, and soon the industrialized light lagers were being brewed regionally and shipped cold via rail to nearly all corners of the country.
Pilsner beer is distinct and traditionally quite narrowly defined. The most notable characteristic is it’s light golden color and brilliant clarity. The beer’s hue has been derided in recent years by craft brewers, but don’t confuse a true European or American craft pilsner with industrial light lager. They may both be yellow and fizzy, but a true pilsner will delight the tongue with its lively carbonation and round, subtle maltiness before finishing dry and clean with a floral and spicy hop flavor.
Pilsners are usually brewed to be around 5%ABV, and they are well-attenuated with a medium body that was traditionally achieved through a complex and lengthy decoction brewing process. The beer produces a rich moussey head that often clings to the glass, and the sparkling effervescence lightens the beer on the tongue. Hop aroma is balanced against a clean grainy scent from the pils malt, and the hops can linger on the finish just enough to keep you reaching for your glass.
There are two main sub styles of Pilsners – Czech and German – though they are very similar. The German versions usually posses a bit more body and are lighter in color with a softer bitterness. Noble hops are used for their floral, herbal aroma that is similar to the Czech Saaz hops traditionally used in Bohemian Pilsners.
What To Drink
Pilsner Urquell is the original pilsner. It is the descendant of that first golden lager produced by the citizens brewery in 1842, and though the process has changed over the decades since it was first brewed it is still considered a hallmark of the style. The brewery was purchased by SABMiller in 1999, and many reports claim the quality of the beer suffered through the early-2000s.
The beer is packaged in a distinctive green-glass bottle that leaves the beers very prone to skunking, but In recent years the brewery has made an effort to return to its roots and has begun to cold-ship the bottled beers to America to preserve freshness. Green bottles are still used, but six-packs are completely enclosed in cardboard to protect from light, and they are prominently date-coded on the top of the box. Still, the cans of Pilsner Urquell are preferable – if you can find them.
Bitburger is perhaps the most common imported German Pils, and it showcases the softer and less hop-forward nature of the German versions. However, most agree that the beer’s quality has declined in recent decades. The Warsteiner Pils or the offering from the Paulaner Brewery may be a more enjoyable German Pils.
American Craft Pilsner
For one reason or another craft brewers haven’t approached lager brewing with the same creativity and experimentation that they have brought to ale brewing, and their lagers mostly hue closely to the traditional styles. Pilsners are a popular style for those craft breweries tackling lagers, though these versions often forgo the restrained balance of their namesakes for a more pronounce hop character.
Victory Brewingin Pennsylvania makes perhaps the most hop-forward American Pilsner: Prima Pils. Long a personal favorite, the German-styled pils nails the body and color and amps up the floral noble hop character. Love IPAs? Give Prima Pils a shot.
Locally there are several breweries making fine pilsners:
- The hop-wizard Julian Shrago – Brewmaster at Long Beach’s Beachwood Brewing – recently brewed his first lager. Loma Prieta Pils is generously hopped with spicy Saaz hops, and it is an eminently drinkable example of the style.
- Noble Ale Works makes a light Czech-style pils that is hopped with fruity New Zealand hops that are a departure from the traditional noble hops, but it’s a delicious departure.
- Angel City is developing a German-style pils with a variety of noble hops that’s a little higher in alcohol and a little less bitter than other craft pilsners. Brewmaster Dieter Forstner is adept a lager brewing thanks to years working with Gordon Biersch recipes, and it show in the ACB pilsner.
- Smog City’s Little Bo Pils is a local favorite pilsner, and the light, crisp brew will again be in bars this summer.
- One of the masters of lager brewing in the Southland is TAPS Fish House’s Viktor Novak, and at the Brea brewpub he makes not one, but three varieties of pilsner: German, a Bohemian, and a American/Euro light pils.
We’ve got a new favorite pilsner though. Pivo Pils from Firestone Walker is a new regular production lager, and the beer has been in development many months.
Brewmaster Matt Brynildson took inspiration from an Italian pilsner from Birrificio Italiano, and he’s worked hard to capture the same intense floral aroma and delightfully piquant, zesty finish. The dry lager uses a new hop variety – Saphir – for dry hopping, and the the beer is as hoppy as Prima Pils but the bitterness is softer and rounder and the finish even cleaner.
Serving and Pairings
Pilsners are such an iconic beer style that they have their own specialty glassware – naturally known as a pilsner. Metal and wooden barware was the norm in the early 19th century. Industrial glassware production was advancing just as the pilsner gained popularity, and the brilliant clarity of the new brew begged for a clear glass vessel.
The pilsner glass is tall, narrow, and usually footed. Most feature slightly flared sides to help support the beer’s fluffy head while the narrow shape showcases the beer’s pale color and sparkling carbonation. Many of the stand-out pilsner brands have signature glass shapes with subtle variations on the theme. Pivo Pils is no different, and the signature Pivo glass also includes a laser-etched hop to provide nucleation sites for a nonstop stream of fine bubbles.
Pilsners take marvelously to food. The lively carbonation and sharp hop character make it a good match for rich, fatty foods. The clean bready flavors of the malt pair to simpler dishes, and pilsner affinity for ham, especially the cured german speck varieties, is well known. Shellfish, Asian cuisines (especially Thai with its abundance of spice, citrus, and fresh herbs), bold Mexican dishes, and simple salads can all be elevated with a balanced pilsner.
While pilsners are endlessly versatile at the table, one of their greatest strengths is as an Aperitif. “The bitterness of the best examples [of pilsners] arouses the gastric juices and awakens the appetite” wrote Michael Jackson in his Ultimate Beer guide, and who are we to argue with the renowned “Beer Hunter”? Pilsner make a great first-round order before you’ve decided on what you’ll be dining on.
The Brewer’s Beer
Pilsners do not get the respect that they deserve from the craft beer community at large, though this seems to be changing. It isn’t difficult to appreciate the wonderful balance and harmony that a sparkling pils displays, and American craft brewers are even forging new flavor profiles for the venerable pilsner through the use of new hop varieties. The future of the pilsner is as bright as their signature flavors, and you’d be hard-pressed to fins a more versatile beer. From an aperitif to the base for a beer cocktail, from the beach to the ball room, from America’s home-grown craft brewers to centuries-old european producers, the pilsner is nearly always a good choice.
Pilsner has been called a “brewer’s beer,” and though it is a style that is many people’s first experience with beer, pilsners take some time and experience to fully appreciate.
When was the last time you sat down to a tall glass of the golden lager? Don’t you think it’s time to give it another try?